On The Syrian Chess Game

30 November 2015

It has clear now that Syria has become more than just a battleground for the war between the regime and its opposition, and between extremists and moderates. There are many outside players now on the chessboard that is now Syria. This board has become crowded with the soldiers, the rooks, the bishops. The battle for each faction is to make their presence and power felt; their main goal in this war is to force a checkmate.

As Syria became divided into four or five factions, between moderates, extremists, the regime and their supporters, and the Iranian-backed militias, outside forces have increased their presence recently. Only recently, Turkey declared that they are going to get involved militarily to combat ISIS, the PYD and Kurdish militias in northern Syria, in the name of protecting their southern border with Syria.

Russia also made the decision to reify its support for the Syrian regime by becoming militarily involved; it has not only reinforced its military presence on the Syrian shores but it has also sent new fighter jets to its airbase in Latakia and repaired the runways.

This increased Russian support fulfils old military contracts with Syria and has been cloaked by the narrative that they have presented to the international sphere: that they are supporting the regime in its fight against ISIS. It has become clear, after recent air raids, that the Syrian regime is trying to convince the world that it is fighting terrorism even if it has shied away from targeting ISIS before.

Russia is tirelessly trying to increase its presence in the Middle East, through Syria. It is also trying to make clear that its military involvement has always been geared towards defending those threatening its interests anywhere in the world. Russia’s recent steps have been to continue grabbing territories, the goal being to reinforce and make its presence felt in the lands it considers strategic priorities. This strategy can be seen clearly in its actions in Georgia and Ukraine. It appears as though the timing right now is most suitable for its increased military movements inside of Syria.

Turkey’s declaration that it is involving itself militarily in the North in order to create a neutral territory in Syria to protect their Southern border, and the Western support for this declaration, was alarming to the Assad regime. Russia’s involvement works to balance, militarily, any movements from Turkey or from the powers supporting it, and to support the Syrian regime strongholds along the coast, and in Damascus. The West’s silence shouldn’t be forgotten, however, nor should their hesitation to involve themselves in Syria. It appears as though the West seemingly agrees with Russia’s moves.

There’s no doubt that Russia wants to keep the Syrian regime in power. For as long as Assad rules the land, the Syrian civil war will never end. The Russians have benefitted from this militarily, as they have proven to the international sphere that they are a main player in the restive region, especially following the failure of the Western coalition in targeting ISIS. The Russians have also benefitted from the sales of millions of dollars worth of weapons to the Syrian regime.

Their involvement is not enough to reverse what was happened on the ground: it will not help the Syrian regime regain its losses as it will barely be enough to maintain the status quo. Russia realizes that the regime’s control of the country is slipping and will not last forever. Thus, this military reinforcement is not to protect the regime, but rather to prolong the war in order to ensure its presence in any plans for Syria’s future.

Russia does not want to repeat its mistakes in Libya, where it allowed the Western nations to enter militarily. This led to a limited Russian presence in Libya. Syria, today, is Russia’s most important -- and final -- foothold in the Middle East. Russia, with all this maneuvering, is betting on its future. Currently, they are building a new military base in the coastal town of Jableh. This confirms aspirations for a long-term presence in Syria.

On the other hand, it seems that the U.S. has been merely watching this entire time. Contrary to speculation, it appears as though the Russian military involvement has the White House’s blessing, at least until the next U.S. administration takes hold after the coming election. There is a clear disparity between the views of the top two candidates. The face of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, has already announced that the first priority in Syria should be to impose a no-fly zone, and to work towards solving the Syrian problem by leaving all political and military options open. This includes arming the moderate opposition. Another Democratic leader, George Pataki, wants to continue monitoring the situation, and supporting the political solutions through negotiations. U.S. responses, especially towards the Russian movements in Syria, has fallen in line. The White House is approving Russian movements, until the new elections.

When Russia felt danger in Georgia, it invaded the north in 2008, and supported the state of South Ossetia. It proactively helped strike a balance on the ground, and prevent U.S. shields against missiles. In 2014, after tensions in Ukraine grew, Russia took the initiative to enter the Crimean peninsula under the pretext of protecting Russian nationals living in Crimea. This was after it was made clear that their allied party in the Ukrainian government would not survive the brewing uprising. If these military interventions do not have analogies in the Cold War, they no doubt have contributed to strengthening Russia’s position, and prevention of any losses of Russian interests.

Today in Syria there is: a Western alliance against ISIS, a Turkish intervention in the North, and calls for the West to expand operations targeting the Syrian regime as the main reason for the conflict. There is also the presence of extremist forces controlling wide territories in Syria, headed by ISIS and Al-Nusra. Russia’s intervention has strategically placed it in the forefront, necessitated by their drive to remain a player in the Middle East and to prevent military action against Assad. These movements are to ensure its role in Syria after Assad, to restore the balance of power in the region, and defend its future interests in the region.

It is clear that the new theater for the Cold War between Russia and the United States will be Syria.

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad